Everybody loves mail

From armor to fashion, overlapping metal rings intrigue

By Pamela H. Sacks

WORCESTER — Talk about a fashion statement with legs — and leggings, for that matter.

There was nothing quite like a full coat of mail in the Middle Ages; today, mail hoods, vests and even bikinis (ouch!) are popular among followers of “Goth” culture.

Mail, of course, is that flexible body armor made of small overlapping metal rings. It is commonly called chain mail, but, historically speaking, the correct term is just “mail.”

Fashion aside, mail was perhaps the most successful type of armor ever invented. It protected the armpit, inner elbow, groin, neck and other vulnerable areas from knife cuts. Down through the centuries, the full coat of mail, known as a hauberk, was highly prized and passed from one generation to the next.

Roman legionnaires wore mail, and Norman soldiers of the Dark Ages dressed in knee-length coats of the meshlike material. The knights of the early Crusades were completely clad in mail, which they covered with surcoats of cloth displaying their coats-of-arms.

Even as armor plating got heavier in the 15th century to ward off arrows from the powerful longbow, mail continued as the underwear of choice. It remained so until the 16th century, when it gradually fell out of favor across Europe.

Plate armor, meanwhile, became history, as a result of the wide use of firearms in the middle of the 17th century.

But mail seems to have an enduring allure. In the early 1900s, stylish Americans were donning the metal garments, starting a trend that has continued, in clothing and in jewelry.

Not surprisingly, the Higgins Armory Museum, the only institution in the Western Hemisphere solely dedicated to arms, armor and related artifacts, has a vast collection of mail. But it is largely stored out of sight and is taken out only for the benefit of scholarly research.

“We have a very, very large study collection,” said Kent Russell, Higgins’ executive director. “It’s one of 10 or 20 collections of this size and quality in the world.”

Yet, Mr. Russell said, there are few scholars of arms and armor and many everyday people who find the connection to those mystical, ancient times irresistible.

So, the Higgins is about to oblige those with a yen for a closer look by mounting an exhibition, “Lords of the Rings: Two Millennia of Mail,” which will run from Feb. 28 to Sept. 1.

While many people identify mail with King Arthur and his famous knights, it was also commonly used — and for far longer — in other parts of the world. It was exported to cultures bordering the remote areas of the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, through conquest and trade, mail was adopted throughout the Middle East, northern Africa, India and the Philippines. The Japanese seem to have developed it on their own.

With an emphasis on the aesthetics of mail, Higgins’ curator Jeffrey Forgeng has organized the exhibit to provide a broad cultural view of its use.

“Arms and armor has always had something of a fashion component,” he said. “It always has some kind of aesthetic and cultural dimension and is making some kind of statement.”

Mr. Forgeng is particularly fond of mail and plate leggings. A Japanese pair, backed with fabric and decorated with plates of lacquer will be part of the show.

For the sheer beauty of execution, Mr. Forgeng said, nothing can match two Indo-Persian head pieces with mail attached.

“The links are tiny and each is riveted by hand,” he said. “It was a tremendous amount of work. Because the links are so small, they have beautiful flow.”

A Filipino coat of mail with plates of horn and brass rings also is among Mr. Forgeng’s favorites. “The horn has the patina of age,” he said, adding that it was probably made between the 17th century and 19th century. “It’s hard to date these pieces,” he noted.

This is the museum’s major educational exhibit for 2002, and Mr. Forgeng and the museum’s director of education, Heather Feland, decided together on the concept. The show will travel to eight or 10 sites across the country after it closes here.

“Every major exhibit we do we’ll put on the bandwagon to get the museum’s name known outside of New England,” said Mr. Russell. “Once you get outside of New England, arms and armor are very rare things.”

Mr. Forgeng’s area of specialization is cultural history. He is particularly interested in how violence is accommodated by people and society at large.

“One of the things I have studied,” Mr. Forgeng said, “is the way in which people mediate between that kind of chaotic force and the need for an organized society that functions.”

What is important to convey, he said, is that the objects presented are not just tools for fighting. Rather, they are an integral part of societal posturing and negotiation in terms of power and status.

Military paraphernalia often has less to do with violent force than the assertion of authority through the display of arms, Mr. Forgeng said. That has been the case from the days of medieval jousts to the May Day parades in Moscow’s Red Square.

Mail as pure fashion seems to have developed in the early part of the 20th century, when the chrome and metallic look took center stage. Its popularity paralleled the beginning of the mass production of steel. A ball gown made of the tiniest of rings and as supple as cloth is a fine example of that trend. Made around 1920, it weighs 20 pounds; it is one of the highlights of the exhibit.

Today, mail may not be high fashion, but it has its fans, as several Web sites attest. They offer an array of mail fashions, aimed, it seems, toward those who appreciate the Goth look. A headdress that covers the shoulders is “versatile enough to wear with pride at the next Ren faire, clubbing, at a party, or for just around the house.” A sleeveless mail T-shirt is “heavy, medieval, gothic and guaranteed to get attention and admiration.”

In fact, mail and plate armor are still produced in their full glory. Valentine Armouries of Calgary has been making handcrafted, custom-fitted replicas for 21 years. As of August, the company had completed 265 full suits of armor and 880 historical helmets.

Valentine states that much of the armor is made for use in movies, but the really fine examples are crafted for individual collectors at a cost of thousands of dollars.